I am a sucker for a good story. I am a sucker for giant dogs.
Maybe I am just a sucker.
This isn’t about me, though. This week I read Lauren Fern Watt’s Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog. Actually, I read the book over the course of four hours. I mistakenly started it before bed and found I couldn’t sleep until I finished it. That’s one way of saying I recommend it.
This is being a memoir about life with a dog, I think you know how it ends. Gizelle dies. You will probably want tissues handy. The book is 239 pages through the epilogue; I started crying on page 185. It is difficult to read with teary vision, although not impossible.
If you have or currently share life with a giant dog, especially a mastiff, this may have triggers for you. If osteosarcoma has been a part of your life as a caregiver, this may have triggers for you. And an unexpected trigger may be drug and alcohol addiction, which surfaces throughout the book in Lauren’s relationship with her mother.
Lauren's account of life with a gigantic dog was so relatable for me. When she wrote about scrubbing slobber off her walls every day, I understood. When she described the complications of getting ready in the morning while being followed by a 160 lb. dog (especially when said dog comes into the bathroom with you), I got it. Her book read more like a conversation with a friend than a story being told for the sake of telling a story. Her writing is warm, approachable, and sincere.
Here's the rough story.
Young adult receives gift of puppy from her mother. Young adult's relationship with mother is strained due to alcoholism. Young adult goes away to college and leaves massive puppy with family, making frequent visits. Young adult decides to move to New York City and miraculously finds a Times Square apartment that will accept a gigantic dog. Young adult works in fashion to pay the bills, meets a young adult on Tinder she finds attractive, and begins a new relationship. Young adult moves to a new apartment in a new neighborhood with a new roommate. Young adult notices gigantic dog's limp and seeks medical attention, and relocates gigantic dog to live with friends outside of the city where she doesn't need to climb stairs. Young adult learns that her gigantic dog's limp is from osteosarcoma . . .
Woven within is the hilarious story about riding in a canoe with two adults, a spider, and a gigantic dog. There are adventures in pooping in Manhattan. Canine costume contests and mistaken identity at the dog park. Stuff that will definitely bring a smile to your face. Oh, and the photographs. Each chapter begins with a photograph of Gizelle so you can fall in love with her a little more.
This book may have triggers in it for people who have experienced alcohol or drug abuse in a close relationship. The osteosarcoma diagnosis may also be a trigger for humans who have been down that road with a beloved animal.
I thought most of this book would be about Gizelle's bucket list adventures. Nope. That began in Part II: The Bucket List, on page 163. Part I: Enchanted covered the highlights of Gizelle and Lauren, including how they became family, how Gizelle got her name, and their early adventures in moving to New York City. I really, really wanted more stories about the end of life, and the title of the book led me to believe that was a reasonable expectation. That said, I also appreciate Lauren's decision to begin at the beginning so we could all come to love Gizelle in ways that might not have been possible with less history.
When I arrived at page 185, any consternation I had about the book dissolved in one paragraph. One of Gizelle's bucket list items was seeing the autumn leaves turn and fall. We can probably guess that this bucket list was more of a list of things that Lauren wanted to do with Gizelle, and that was just fine by Gizelle because I'm sure what she really wanted was as much time and joy with Lauren as she could get. Anyway, Lauren described a moment when she watched the autumn leaves fall in New England with Gizelle by her side, and she thought about "how something could turn so beautiful right before it went brown and left the world forever." She described Gizelle's joy in wriggling in the leaves and declared that she was "as beautiful as I'd ever seen."
The rest of the book was a sob fest for me. Gizelle's story was lovely and I felt connected with her and Lauren. The more powerful thing for me was reflecting on my own experiences in the end of life. Those days of caregiving in the shadow of a terminal diagnosis. The intensity of the emotions and the exhaustion of the additional care. Ah, it's so much. It is so much and it is so worth it. Every time.
That's what I most love about Lauren's book. This was a journey for her. Gizelle was with her during significant transitions in her life, and darn near everyone I've met with animal family members knows what that is like. Lauren wrote about how she always wrote in her journal while it rested on Gizelle's coffee table of a torso. It's those little things that bind our souls together in ways that words can never fully describe.
There are two other things I want to mention about Lauren's wisdom and vulnerability. First, she wrote about how a moment after Gizelle died she no longer wanted to be with her body. Gizelle wasn't there, and she could feel it. She looked back on the hulking body that carried the one she loved and realized it was only a vessel. The second is tied to that - Lauren's epilogue is about how she carries Gizelle with her. She forever has a place in her heart, and death cannot change that.
Gizelle's Bucket List has a film option, so you might see a version of this on the screen.
You can follow Lauren's current adventures with her expanded family (so cute) on her blog, The Girl & Her Dog Blog.
Our beloved Arden died Sunday, June 24, after a gentle decline. She asked to go outside and wasn't able to get to her favorite place herself. My husband gently scooped her tiny body into his arms and delivered her to the ground beneath her surveillance station. There she drew her last breath.
I had the honor of caring for her body after death, and I prepared a small box with an old towel for the ride to Resting Waters Aquamation, about one hour north of our home. I cut several branches from the shrub that provided the cover for the surveillance station for her adornment.
Resting Waters was absolutely the right place for Arden. I had no doubt. I've come to know the sisters behind his heartfelt service, Joslin and Darci, and knew they would care for Arden as family. Their warm, calm energy is just the sort of thing Arden would appreciate - Arden never knew strangers and everyone she met was someone she was delightfully curious about, especially if that person was interested in marveling at her green eyes or her gregarious personality.
And she loved water. She would wait outside the shower for one of us to finish and trot in as soon as the shower door opened.
I sent an email to Resting Waters on Sunday evening and received a reply within an hour. Resting Waters had room for Arden the next day.
It's a welcoming space. It feels simple and open, and there are small touches throughout that suggest this is more than a business for Joslin and Darci: this is a calling to serve. There are always fresh flowers (and I've been three times - even in winter there were fresh flowers). It smells like a spa, thanks to the delicious candles they use.
This wall is in the reception area and showcases the gorgeous options for urns. This is so much nicer than looking through them in a catalog or online. I would think that for a person who hadn't decided, being able to see and touch them would make a difference. Because we are sharing Arden's remains with our neighbors (who loved her dearly), we opted for the paper scattering urn. It's the cylinder with the turquoise swirls (from the Resting Waters logo) on the right. I know those are supposed to represent water, and the more I look at it the more I also see waves of grief.
I sat in the chair next to this side table and filled out the form. If you think you couldn't possibly fill out a form at a time like this, I'm sure either Joslin or Darci would help you. My vision was blurred by tears and my brain muddled with grief and I managed to get through it. That doesn't mean that the information I provided was legible or accurate, though.
From the chair I could also see one of the displays at the counter. My friend Carolyn, who is based in Tacoma, creates fused glass jewelry and incorporates cremated remains of whom you love. Her work is here and you can see it in person, and this reminds me that I would like to write a blog post just about her and her work.
While I cried my way through the form, Darci prepared Arden for viewing. I'm not sure what I expected. I mean, I had seen photographs of animals in the viewing space and am certainly no stranger to death. Our family had been with Arden's body in the house and I greatly value that time because it helps me see that the body truly is a vessel. It's just a container. So I guess what I'm saying is that I thought the viewing would not be a significant experience in my case because we had already had ceremony at home.
I shifted to work mode because I wanted to document this experience for the Slobbered Lens family (spoiler alert: it's worth the drive if you are in Tacoma or across The Narrows). I photographed the space, the table, The Boy as he flopped around in one of those comfortable chairs, the flowers, and Arden.
Sweet Arden. Seeing her in a reverent space where she was the center of all things was a moving experience. This is what grief needs to begin to flow. It needs that space. It needs that acknowledgement and validation that the feelings are important. The history is important. This life, this connection, this relationship are all important.
I rested my camera on a chair, closed my eyes, and felt the tears barrel down my cheeks. I needed this. This space and opportunity for ceremony, however slight, were necessary for me. Without them I would have missed this final chance to connect with this gorgeous container for a soul I know will be close to me, always. Here I could thank Arden's body for carrying her to be with us when she was four (or was she five?) months old. Here I could thank Arden's body for allowing her to be with us for 17 years. Here I could release her to the universe.
Darci graciously allowed me time with Arden without hurry. I said my goodbye, rounded up The Boy, and headed to the reception area. Darci met me with a heartfelt embrace and assurance that she and Joslin would take the very best care of Arden. She told me she had the ability to begin Arden’s process that day and would send an email when her remains were ready to be picked up.
So, yes. I valued the time I had there. I appreciate that a ceremony or a viewing opportunity doesn't feel right for everyone. What I know from conversations with Joslin and Darci is that they appreciate that, too, and there isn't any pressure to do one thing or another. They also make the space available for larger ceremonies for families who would like to have a service and invite others to attend.
The following Saturday The Boy and I made the return journey to bring Arden’s vessel home (that’s just six days later). Joslin received us and warmly engaged The Boy.
I had the opportunity to see the collection of love Joslin was prepared to dispense that morning. Joslin referred to the stout forest of kraft gift bags as “presents from heaven” and shared with me the story behind that phrase (it is from a young person who visited). Witnessing the bags of various sizes, each with a handwritten tag, was another reminder of how heartbroken so many people feel in this space. And how many of them there are.
Twice I have picked up cremated remains of our animal family, and both times from an emergency hospital. Walking up to the counter and squeaking out the words that named the reason for my visit . . . I want to cry thinking about it. It’s much harder than I ever expected and is definitely one of those grief experiences that people do not talk about.
At Resting Waters, everyone knows. There isn’t a crowd of people in the waiting area to witness your lip tremble or your tears fall. These incredible women and death care professionals are ready to be with you, and they aren’t distracted by triage needs or discharge paperwork. They specialize in this, and it feels that way.
I left Resting Waters with appreciation and admiration for the compassionate and wholehearted care my family received. Working with grief every day is challenging in ways that are difficult to describe, and I am incredibly grateful for Joslin and Darci and their decision to serve families in this way. They are meant for this work.
The little things also made this a beautiful experience. The fresh flowers are lovely and I enjoyed those. One of the things that really struck me was the text on the inside of the scattering urn.
Even death has a heart.
Yes. Yes, it does.
Thank you, Joslin and Darci, for caring for our little girl. Our girly meow.
You can learn more about Resting Waters Aquamation at restingwaters.com.
There are so many options when it comes to collars.
Options from small businesses that handmake products are harder to find. For those of us in Tacoma, there is happily a new collar maker on the block: Mr. Powers.
I had the pleasure of visiting with Mr. Powers and his partner, Renate, at Art on the Ave, and saw beautifully crafted pieces. Mr. Powers makes collars by hand and Renate repurposes belts into a more whimsical style of collar she calls Second Chance.
Yep, leads are available, too, and I bet if you ask nicely you can get a custom order. By the looks of it, Mr. Powers can create darn near anything from leather.
I love supporting small businesses because I know where my money is going and I generally receive top notch service. It is a wonderful thing to be a part of the community.
If you'd like to check out what Mr. Powers and Renate are creating, you can follow them on Facebook. You can also look for them at the new night market in Tacoma.
I'm Shannon, and I love and am loved by four Great Danes, four cats, and one horse (four Danes, one cat, and one horse are no longer walking this earth). Here I'll share stories of my adventures in grief photography for companion animals, my own grief journey, and thoughts on caregiving.